Today in modern history is the day that marks the beginning of eras. Today in 1869, the continental United States was finally connected by rail from East to West. This allowed the rapid transport of people, goods and ideas across the USA. On this day in 1924, Edgar Hoover was appointed as the head of the FBI. A closet cross-dresser and held blackmail by the Mafia, Hoover kept his post for almost 6 decades until his death in 1972. In 1954, Bill Hailey and the Comets released “Rock around the Clock” today, the first number one bestselling rock-n-roll hit in history. Outside of the USA, today in 1981, Francois Mitterrand became the first socialist President of France and today in 1994 Nelson Mandela was sworn-in as the first democratically elected President of South Africa.
On perhaps a more mundane note, in 1893 the US Supreme Court ruled today that the tomato is a vegetable and not a fruit. This meant that it was subject to taxes and tariffs applying to veggies.
In the world of ideas however this day marks two important birthdays and one death.
Marcel Mauss was born this day in 1872. The nephew of Emile Durkheim, Mauss is most famous for his book on gifts. No not a gift book per se but a treatise on the idea and social use of gifts. Mauss argues strongly that all gifts demand reciprocation. That there is no free gift. Gifts, according to Mauss are social means to bind people together, to create social cohesion. In many cultures gifts are given in the expectation that they will be reciprocated. This argument has implications for Christian theology and our ideas about philanthropy and Corporate social development.
Talking of gifts, we also can mark the birth of Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian and resister against Nazism. Barth had an odd relationship with his wife and his assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum who probably gave him many of his ideas but has been curiously ignored by many of Barth’s followers. The big idea that Barth gave us was a reworking of the Calvinist doctrine of election. That strange notion that God has already chosen who will be saved and who will be damned even before we are born and there is nothing we can do about it. Barth’s doctrine of election involves a firm rejection of the notion of an eternal, hidden decree. Barth reworks the idea of election by arguing that God has chosen us by giving us his Son.
I’m not sure where this leaves those who would follow the arguments of Mauss but we must, as an antidote of sorts I guess mark the death of Walter Wink on this day in 2012. Wink was a loveable and outspoken activist and progressive Christian. His big idea was that there are powers and principalities at work in the world and that these govern us with a malign intent. The task of any spirituality is to identify and unmask these powers that lie behind our governance. Wink, a pacifist and social activist argued that imperialists often operate under the myth of redemptive violence. That the myth that somehow we can be redeemed by struggle and war, is deeply embedded in our discourse and thinking on civilization.
Well today for sure remember that it is a day for the start of eras, perhaps even errors? Today might be as good a day as any to prove Marcel Mauss wrong and honour Karl and Walter by electing to give someone with no power a gift without hope any return. Perhaps then we can call the tomato a fruit.
– Douglas Racionzer (you’ll find a full archive of Doug’s daily musings at http://serendipiday.blogspot.com/)